Makin' love to his tonic and gin
He says, Son can you play me a memory
I'm not really sure how it goes
But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes
It stood, my gypsy caravan, on some land my grandfather had – an old allotment, I think, with unused greenhouses whitewashed against the sun, and in the beds, mounds of pinks overrun with meadow grass – stood silvery, all paint and decoration gone, backing onto a hawthorn hedge under which grew foxgloves and ferns.
Looking back it was stupid, to keep muscle magazines in the caravan, but my bedroom was no longer a viable option after the long and loud berating I'd received from my grandmother. I cannot but think of "And when did you last see your father?" each time I remember that charming occasion.
A solitary child, watchful and guarded, as many of us become when we begin to realize the difference that doesn't lift but certainly separates, the caravan had, over a couple of years, become my home-from-home - a real refuge, or so I thought. I hadn't furnished it – I was thirteen and pocket money was pretty scarce – but I had built a primitive fireplace from a defunct rockery. I loved to sit in the sun on the steps or, on a rainy day, on the floor, back against the wall facing the open door.
That day, the day I was reduced to having but one home and an unquiet one at that, I walked through the gate and found my caravan – and it remains, my caravan – had been wrenched and hammered into a pile of sticks. It took me a lifetime to understand the hatred of difference personified in that vandalism.
Of course, my muscle magazines had been found again and this time by people who spread the knowledge around the whole estate, most of whom were waiting for me on the other side of the stream, watching as they sent their champion down the banks to beat me up. He did not go unbloodied but I lost the only physical fight I've ever had, and what I remember more than the pain of my face was the pleasure that people who were my neighbors and, until that moment, trustworthy ones at that, took in my shame. What I also remember is the way nothing was said when I got home, either by me or by my grandparents.
I never went back. Yet in some ways I go back all the time for the appeal of silvery wood, the filtered light of whitewashed, even dirty, glass, the scent of pinks and the reek of creosote, minnows in clear flowing water, the frothy beauty of hawthorn and elderberry blossoms, the magnificence of foxgloves, birdsong, bluebells and buttercups, have accompanied me in my own journey west, if only now in my memory, in my own Calistoga wagon, and are the essence of both my aesthetic and my desire for refuge.
Do not imagine that my caravan was in any way as luxuriously decorated as the one you see here. Smaller than my present hall closet, it had bare boards for walls and floor, but two small square windows at either end, two more flanking the door, a set of shelves built-in above a tiny cupboard on top of which I kept an old, cracked ceramic vase (Art Nouveau, as I now know) that was as ugly as sin but somehow lightened the austerity of all that bare wood.
"Everything is designed to gleam and glitter in the soft lamplight. All the drawers and cupboard doors have carved crystal knobs; mirrors are set into walls around the shelves; china hangs and sways on hooks behind glass cupboard doors. The steel stove has its own gleaming fender.
"In this space, a miracle of compactness, there is a dining table, with a cupboard and plate rack above; a wardrobe and red velvet bench seats all with storage cupboards below. There is a painted corner cupboard, shelves for bottles and glasses and a chest of drawers with a mahogany top for ornaments"*
This showman's caravan, no larger than seven feet wide and eighteen feet long, built by Orton and Spooner for a showground owner was top-of-the-line in 1900, as ornately decorated any house of the period and possibly cost as much. Though nowadays it would be considered by many to be claustrophobia-inducing, this "miracle of compactness" prefigures the modern-day Small House Movement.
I mention that my own hall closet is larger than this showman's caravan, not with any sense of pride, for it is neither a miracle of compactness nor a prodigy of sufficiency. Rather, it is full of stuff that one somehow wants to need more than truly needs – living proof that the more space there is, the more alluvia there will be to fill it.
*Quotation from Grand Tourer written by Leslie Geddes-Brown to accompany photographs by Fritz von der Schulenberg for The World of Interiors, December 1989.
Title of post and beginning quotation from Billy Joel's Piano Man.